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In the face of war: Aida and Wozzeck at Finnish National Opera

April 21, 2019

 

Photo: Sakari Viika/Finnish National Opera

 

The Finnish National Opera is a beautiful building (built in 1993) standing on the bank of Teelenlahti gulf in Helsinki, and, as in this city everything is relatively close, going there by foot one can pass all other buildings related to music-making – the new Music Building (Musikkitalo) which now houses also the Sibelius Academy, as well as the Finlandia Hall, the former concert hall for classical music. But despite this feeling of cosiness induced by the cluster of three buildings located near the beautiful stretch of sea water and among the trees and the greenery, the level of music-making has been traditionally high in Finland, and especially in the recent decade. With four world-class classical music conductors coming from Finland (Sakari Oramo, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Hannu Lintu and Susanna Mälkki) and Finnish National Opera competing with other European opera houses, inviting top-class directors and using Finnish star
conductors for music directorship, Helsinki becomes a new and highly pleasant spot for a music lover to visit, explore and make a permanent fixture on his or her schedule.

 

Photo: Sakari Viika/Finnish National Opera

 

Finnish National opera has an extremely interesting programme already announced for next season 2019/20, including Katie Mitchell’s production of ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ by Richard Strauss (musical directorship – Hannu Lintu) and the two first instalments of the Ring Cycle conducted by the Associate Artist of FNO Esa-Pekka Salonen and directed by St. Petersburg Theatre Academy graduate Anna Kelo. There are also productions by Marco Arturo Marelli – ‘Eugene Onegin’ next season, and ‘Pelléas and Mélisande’ (conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen) this coming May. And now, in early spring, there were also two productions of a very high quality to see in this building that is so aesthetically pleasing that one prefers to linger there even after the performance has finished. These productions were ‘Aida’ and ‘Wozzeck’, which, being very different in style and musical texture and belonging to two epochs in opera history, interestingly, share the theme of an invidiual facing war, with personal being intertwined with political, and love torments being exacerbated by armed conflicts.

 

Photo: Sakari Viika/Finnish National Opera

 

Verdi’s ‘Aida’, written as a commission from Ismail Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, premiered in Cairo in 1871, with the libretto written by Antonio Ghislanzoni based on the idea of the Egyptologyst Auguste Mariette. "Aida" follows the doomed love of an Ethiopian princess Aida, imprisoned at the court of King of Egypt’s daughter Amneris, to the Egyptial general Radamès, who fights Ethiopians and captures Aida’s father Amonasro who thus also gets his role in the palace tragedy of love and political duty. Powerful and vengeful Amneris is also in love with Radamès, and thus a love triangle quite similar to that of Mary, Wozzeck and the Drum Major is formed. The main conflict of the opera is reminiscent of Pierre Corneille’s ‘Le Cid’ where the duty and the revenge demanded by Don Gomès from Chimène and her inner struggles, while being in love with Rodrigue, are quite similar to ‘Aida’, although eventually lead to a happier ending.

 

The director Georg Rootering, who has already staged ‘The Nose’ (2015) and ‘Rigoletto’ (2017) at FNO, joining forces with the set designer Bernd Franke, costume designer Götz Lanzelot Fischer and lighting designer Ilkka Paloniemi, creates a visual setting which is sumptuous, very beautiful in its representation of Egyptian court magnificence and yet economic and functional in its different transformations. Although luminescent in its combination of deep blue and golden colours (with Egyptian sun and luxuriousness of the court life almost transpiring through the design), it never gets caught in its own beauty, and in the end of the opera becomes a closeted room, with all the gold and Egyptian-themed wall drawings disappearing, all windows closed and darkness and despair pervading still beautiful, tragic and inherently romantic set where Radamès and Aida meet for the final time before their death.

 

Photo: Sakari Viika/Finnish National Opera
 

Rootering and his team seem to be constantly finding a fine line between producing something pleasing for the audience’s eye and matching the grandeur of Verdi’s musical invention, while also bringing in interesting decisions which set the opera in motion and make it feel elegantly modern. Thus, all the courtiers are modernly dressed, the King of Egypt appeas as an invisible
figure from the opera balcony, speaking like one of those South American dictators, and projections of a modern war footage combining events of the past decade are made in the middle of the opera. Ethiopian prisoners are dressed in loose orange tunics which bear too vague an association with clothes of modern prisoners, and main characters are dressed in quasi historic and very lush and exotic clothes, thus making it clear that Rootering opted and his team for an aesthetically pleasing and grand visual setting with some introductions of modern themes, without actually making any political statement or drawing the audiences to unpleasant territory of political awareness. It was primarily art, not a social message, and art it remained till the end, including several nicely choreographed (Marilena Fontoura) scenes in the second and third acts.

 

Thus, our attention was focused on actual music making by the conductor Patrick Fournillier and his singers: soprano Veronika Dzhioeva as Aida, mezzo-soprano Anna Danik as Amneis, tenor Mika Pohjonen as Radamès, Warwick Fyfe as Amonasro, Aida’s captured father. The main three roles were sung and acted extremely well, with passions ranging from hidden love to jealousy, patriotic ardour and nobility of spirit to desire of revenge. Veronika Dzhioeva was undoubtedly starring in this production, while the final act was a culmination of a romantic streak that ran through the whole opera, counterbalanced by its visual grandeur. One felt indeed like watching a French theatre play, as the passions were well-presented and clearly phrased by the three main singers. Fournillier, leading the FNO orchestra, made sure the grandeur and beauty of Verdi’s operatic writing stood out for the listener’s ear. The opera, with its stunning set, fixes itself in a viewer’s memory as an aesthetic happening, something to please the eye and ear and the emotional needs, with the whole thing being conceived and performed at a very high professional level. It was something that leaves you fulfilled and pleased, while not disturbed – something for a more established, middle-class audience that was present in abundance during the evening.

 

 Photo: Stefan Bremer/Finnish National Opera

 

Wozzeck, directed by an acclaimed Scottich director David McVicar and conducted by Hannu Lintu, and presented as a revival of an earlier production in FNO, was quite a different affair. Wozzeck, an opera by Alban Berg, was composed between 1914 and 1922 and premiered in 1925. The opera is based on an incomplete play Woyzeck (1837) by Georg Büchner, and, because of fragmentary nature of the original material and Berg’s innovative avant-garde techniques in musical writing, sounds astoundingly modern even in the 21st century. In his musical language Berg was evidently influenced by Debussy’s ‘Pelléas and Mélisande’, as well as Schoenberg’s atonal writing and Wagnerian system of leitmotifs, and thus Sprechgesang made possible through atonal techniques of musical writing and leitmotifs for each main character present in the opera. While it is hard to attribute the original drama to any dramatic school, Berg’s opera also stands apart from previous works and seems to have established a blueprint and opened new ways for modern operatic writing.

 

Photo: Stefan Bremer/Finnish National Opera

 

Similarly to ‘Lulu’, ‘Wozzeck’ is about an unhinged, neurotic, unstable modern world and a place of an individual in it. One is reminded of Celine’s ‘Voyage au bout de la nuit’ and obviously Brechtian anti-war drama while watching it: Wozzeck doesn’t want to be engaged in a war, is haunted by nightmares, becomes an object of scientific investigations and eventually kills his companion Marie– partly as a revenge for her adultery, and partly for reasons unknown, as his metaphysical angst in the face of chaotic world gets the better of him. The estranged modern individual in disharmony with the world and without any clear moral base to lead him on – a disturbing picture of a hopeless plight that inevitably rings true for contemporary audiences.

 

Photo: Stefan Bremer/Finnish National Opera

 

Director David McVicar and designer Vicky Mortimer (together with lighting designer Paule Constable) find an interesting decision to reflect this chaotism, this fragmentation of experiences that have no clear beginning or end. The whole stage is dominated by some kind of a mock war memorial where at the foot of an obelisk there is a statue of a soldier that makes a rude gesture from under the cloak, making the whole theme of patriotism a parody and thus setting the tone for the whole opera. Then the actual proceedings on stage are cut from each other in a very cinema-like montage style through opening and closing curtains similar to those you might see in barracks of hospitals. They are usually drawn into and from stage by a real figure (presumably a soldier or a hospital attendant, but one can also think of a street folk theatre actor starting a farce), and allow for stage designs to be changed and for us to be deeply drawn into the fragmented reality of the piece. The curtains are not evenly placed, and there are two of them running in parallel – one slightly higher than the other, allowing for even a greater instability of the whole set structure. Some new set pieces (for example, the machinery used at the doctor’s office) are flown from the ceiling and they are early 20th century historically accurate, but slightly phantasmagorical realisation and are vaguely reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s films.

Some more intimate scenes are happening in front of those curtains, involving Mary and Marie and her child, Marie and Wozzeck, Marie and the Drum Major, and Wozzeck alone.

 

Photo: Stefan Bremer/Finnish National Opera

 

All group scenes, on the contrary, use up the space usually hidden behind the curtains, this simple decision introduces a very clear cut between personal and social in McVicar’s and Mortimer’s vision for this opera. The most impressive decision comes in the very end, when a small boy, Marie’s son, leaves his toy horse and starts to pull the empty harness similar to the way Wozzeck himself did and reminding us of restless Mother Courage in Brecht’s play. Helena Juntunen is extraordinary here as Marie, and her singing almost makes her, not Wozzeck, the central heroine of the play – one could forget all that happens to Wozzeck and take the whole opera as this woman’s lonely tragedy of desperation not to be alone in this dangerous world.

 

 Photo: Stefan Bremer/Finnish National Opera

 

Wozzeck (Olafur Sigurdarson) is very powerful in his delivery and interacts with his stage partners – Doctor (Tapani Plathan), Captain (Hubert Francis), Marie and the crowd in a very flexible way, showing his character as some kind of Rozencranz and Guildenstern from Hamlet who has no idea of his own destiny. Hannu Lintu energetically and with much attention to detail and sensitivity to Berg’s fragmented musical structure led the FNO orchestra through the musical material of this opera, leaving a huge impression both in terms of artistic realisation and general concept, where dramatic and operatic material spur our imaginations and unearth our own fears in the face of the world facing us. Lintu made this neurotism of music transparent, while always keeping his eye on its beauty and innovative technique. An achievement worth of the best contemporary operatic productions from the Finnish National Opera, making us look forward to the new 2019/20 season in this opera house.

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